Retire Ronald!



By Raj Patel

[Raj Patel – an activist, academic and author of “Stuffed and Starved” and the international bestseller “The Value of Nothing” – exposes Ronald McDonald as an exploitative fraud. His site: – mb]

Apparently, it’s my fault. I’ve got a very young son who will, by the time he comes of age, may well have seen 18 million advertisements. Those ads will shape and mould him into a consumer. Despite my best efforts, love, attention, and presenting of alternatives, the odds are high that he’ll still find, as older foodies than I have found with their children – to their chagrin – that a solitary bucket of KFC is more desirable than a healthy meal shared with friends.

But it’ll be my fault because, apparently, it’s lax parents who are to blame for epidemic levels of diabetes, not the food industry’s marketing billions. That, at least, is what the fast food industry would like to pretend. But it wasn’t always thus.

With entire TV channels premised on direct marketing to children, it seems impossible that there might have been a more innocent time, when kids were considered something other than shorter, louder, more pestering versions of adult consumers. It took a canny cabal of admen to tap the pockets of a newly affluent generation of youngsters. These architects of taste wanted to redefine the frontiers of what advertising in the television age could be.

In order to succeed, they needed a clown, and a plate of meat. And so it was, in 1963, that Ronald McDonald broke the fourth wall on television, and every rule in advertising, when he turned to the camera and addressed children directly, and said:

“Here I am kids. Hey, isn’t watching TV fun? Especially when you got delicious McDonald’s hamburgers. I know we’re going to be friends too cause I like to do everything boys and girls like to do. Especially when it comes to eating those delicious McDonald’s hamburgers.”

It’s easy both to wince at how crass this sounds, and to overlook its audacity. But today, the McDonald’s corporation boasts that their frontman is more recognizable than Santa Claus. He’s the champion of a $32 billion brand. With a wink and a smile, Ronald +has charged into neighborhoods around and inside schools, targeting children with a range of unhealthy food, plumbing every depth to keep his parent company’s arches golden and bright in the minds of impressionable young eaters.

McDonald’s and other fast food firms shelter behind the fact that their advertising is ‘free speech,’ as protected by the First Amendment and that, in any case, the corporations clearly declare their commercial intentions. So, for instance, when children go to to play McD-themed games they’ll see in small white letters on a pale background at the top right the words “Hey kids. This is advertising!” This isn’t terribly helpful. Although children may know that something is advertising, they are unlikely to understand what, exactly that means.

Michele Simon, a lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit, tells it straight: “McDonald’s knows that vulnerable children are the perfect advertising audience, since they don’t even know they’re being marketed to.” She suspects that for the group brave enough, and with deep enough pockets, there’s a huge and successful lawsuit to be brought against McDonald’s (and against all advertising targeted at children) for deceptive practices. She’s backed up by the medical profession: the American Academy of Pediatrics says that “advertising directed toward children is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age.” In other words, the very idea of advertising to children is a fraud. Children are simply unable to generate and entertain rational opinions about goods and services, which cuts away the argument that advertising is just a more entertaining version of truth-telling. When it comes to children, advertising is far closer to brainwashing.

Parents are being hoodwinked too. One of the reasons that kids are permitted by pestered parents to enter a McDonald’s is the possibility that they might choose a healthy meal when they’re there. As Wendi Gosliner, a Researcher at the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley observes, “not one of the 24 Happy Meal combinations offered contains the foods and nutrients children need to meet the Dietary Guidelines. Now, they’re promoting processed fresh apples dipped in caramel sauce and sweetened milk as ‘healthy’ choices. Well, these meals and these choices are hurting our children’s health.”

There’s a bigger picture story here too. Ronald isn’t just a clown. He’s not just a pioneer in the marketing of food to children: he’s also an architect. Without him, the food system we have today would look very different. Here and around the world, the way food is grown, subsidized, processed and eaten has been fashioned by the needs of the McDonald’s corporation.

More sales for the clown mean bigger returns for Cargill and Tyson’s factory farms, Archer Daniels Midland’s high fructose corn syrup processing plants, and Monsanto’s pesticide production facilities. And it’s our tax dollars that go into everything from the cheap commodities that they depend on, to the small business loans and tax credits that allow fast food franchises to breed in and around our schools. For these subsidies, and for the lax regulations around health and advertising to children, the fast food industry has spent millions in lobbying fees, aggressively courting political favor. Ronald McDonald may have a big smile, but his shoes are steel-tipped.

Ultimately, McDonald’s cheap food is cheat food. Ronald is a Hamburgler, dipping into our pockets with our children’s fingers, and leaving us with bills for long afterward. We pay for it all in the end. The cost of diabetes in the US alone is $700 for every man, woman and child. For people of color, diet related disease is incredibly important – one in two children of color born in 2000 will develop diabetes.

Times are changing, though. Despite the millions that McDonald’s spends in advertising, and despite most people having a favorable impression of Ronald as a consequence, a new survey shows that most parents who have kids under 18 want Ronald to go. Corporate Accountability International, (an organization which I advise), has released a terrific report entitled Clowning with Kid’s Health: The Case for Ronald McDonald’s Retirement, in which the survey data on Ronald is presented, and some tight legal and epidemiological arguments against him are made.

This isn’t some curmudgeonly attack on fun. For those who want to watch clowns, there’ll always be circuses and cable news. And it’s certainly the case that there are bigger questions here. Why is it that junk food is cheaper than healthy food? Why is there persistent poverty driving people into the arms of the junk food industry. Why isn’t there real choice in the US diet?

But as a matter of public health, as a way to give parents the chance to get their children eating well, as a way of making it possible to have fun with food without spending scarce cash on unhealthy food, the clown’s gotta go.

There is a precedent: Joe Camel, once more widely recognized than Mickey Mouse, is now a symbol of shame for the cigarette industry. Sure, cigarettes are themselves bad, but worse was the conscious attempt by the industry behind them to hook kids on a lifetime of ill health.

We’re at a similar moment in the transformation of our food system. There’s lots to do to transform how we eat, but along the way we all need to recognize that parents need the space to be able to feed their kids well, to give the next generation the freedom to choose to eat healthily. Yes, this is a matter of freedom. Before you can start blaming parents for the choices of their children, you need to be able to make the case that children could reasonably have chosen differently, and that parents might reasonably have helped to shape that choice. Several million McDollars stand in the way of that freedom. So, whether you want a sustainable food system, or just the sort of world where you can whale on parents like me for the poor food choices of their children, one thing’s clear: it’s time to Retire Ronald.

Posted in Food Politics


  1. alfed84 said...

    Mark,Thanks so much for making these points. There is so much being written and talked about these days about environmental and health impact of our food system, it’s just too bad that Ronald couldn’t be the spokesclown for healthly and sustainable food. Keep fighting the good fight!

  2. alkali19 said...

    1) It should not be forgotten that the universal availability of cheap food that will not kill you within the week is a great achievement of western civilization. 150 years ago, children died all the time, mostly from bad food — my great-great-great grandmother buried 9 of her 14 children before they reached age 6. Yes, we need to confront the problems of obesity and nutritional balance that we face today, but some perspective is required.2) Ronald McDonald is qualitatively different from Joe Camel, for this reason: Joe Camel wants to sell tobacco, full stop. McDonalds has no special interest in selling your kids McBurgers and McFries. They would be just as happy to sell your kids McFalafel and McTofu with McSprouts — actually, happier, because their food costs would be much lower, even with organics. Parents have been trying to get kids vegetables for a long time, and it is not terribly surprising that McDonalds is not doing any better. McDonalds is well aware of the fact that it would be the greatest corporate hero of the 21st century if it could solve that difficult problem.(Parenthetically, Americans sometimes fail to appreciate that a problem can be caused by structural problems rather than malice or ill will. In the recent health care debate, it was not sufficiently appreciated that the problem is not that such nasty people work for the health insurance companies: the problem is that the market, as it is currently structured, rewards insurance practices that we don’t like. Similarly, politicians are ready to go after BP for what has happened in the Gulf, but the really bad news here might be that perhaps BP wasn’t being reckless, and that we face very uncomfortable tradeoffs between our energy needs and the irreducible risks of offshore drilling. But I digress …)3) McDonalds is not perfect, but it is a pretty good corporate citizen. Remember how everyone used to complain about the styrofoam boxes for the burgers? They’re gone now, and the solid waste stream generated by McDonalds keeps getting lower. They have phased out trans fats. They got rid of "super sizing" (in the face of some bad publicity, but still). Is McDonalds going to take a 75% hit to its revenues to solve the problems of child nutrition once and for all? Well, no (and it’s not even possible). But they are demonstrably willing to keep making changes at the margin, and over time that makes a difference.

  3. riverbend said...

    My first sentence as a toddler was "Go clown – burger?" If that’s not insidious marketing to kids, I don’t know what is. Now I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and haven’t set foot in a McDonald’s in at least a decade. Can’t say that I miss that clown.

  4. emartinie said...

    When I was in grade school, over 50 years ago, there was a local TV personality, Ruffles the Clown, whose show was sponsored by, you guessed it, Ruffles potato chips. Even this relatively mild, locally produced form of marketing had me eating Ruffles in front of the screen every evening. My conscientious mom gave me a limited amount in a bowl, accompanied by a carrot, but I think the point is clear. It’s been going on for a long time and it’s insidious.

  5. lil_bit_special said...

    Until McDonald’s forces you and your kids into their "restaurant" with a gun, it is the parents fault that children eat poorly. I dont care what the impact of advertising is, 8 year olds dont walk into McDonalds on their own. Its the parents fault for allowing advertising to warp the brains of their little snowflakes.

  6. Anonymous said...

    Human beings have become commodities – it’s not just kids, although technically speaking, kids are supposed to be easier to exploit. Seems to me that the parents are just as gullible. Nothing will change until we see others as human, not just as a vehicle for making money.

  7. Anonymous said...

    You can deal with this situation fairly easily: First, ban the television. Even the good stuff. My late wife said "TV makes you stupid" and allowed ourselves and the kids only one hour per week. With the time saved, we were able to eat meals together most nights (substitutions not allowed, but peanut butter was always available), and read stories (Lord of the Rings, all the Oz books, etc.) before bedtime. As a result, they became eaters and readers – although it took a few years before we saw the results. Which leads to my second bit of advice: be patient; parenting is a long haul affair.

  8. Livia said...

    Retire Ronald McDonald? Sounds like a silly band-aid for a huge problem to me. I have a pre-school age daughter, when she watches tv, which is rare, it is DVDs, PBS, or Noggin, with very few commercials. Lots of parents that I know do the same or they DVR shows so they can skip the commercials. Children’s media habits are just as fragmented as adults’, they aren’t all watching the same thing in the same way anymore because there are so many options. I doubt she even knows who Ronald McDonald is since we rarely eat at McD’s.

  9. TruthFromGod said...

    Raj Patel is a liar, he’s a stage hypnotist, he manipulates you. He’s the complice of the elite and he plays a double game. Raj Patel is Maitreya, alias Satan and here’s my concrete proofs:

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